Tag Archives: Oxford English Dictionary

Just what is a fangle? And why can it be only new?

14 Apr

I used the word ‘newfangled’ in conversation today.  It’s not a word I utter every day – but this headline from the Daily Telegraph caused the word to slip out my mouth.

Obviously for Telegraph readers, texting is relatively newfangled technology as the paper felt the need to make texting its headline today, in April 2011.   I did briefly wonder whether I’d travelled back in time to April 2001, when texting would have been sufficiently cutting-edge to make the front page of a national newspaper, but sadly my wrinkles and my waistline assured me it was indeed 2011.

But it got me thinking – why do we say ‘newfangled’?  We don’t ‘fangle’ anything.  We don’t even talk about ‘oldfangled’ (although as of today, I’m going to try and slip that into conversation).

The OED offers a wealth of fangles – newfangled (both adjective and noun), newfangled (verb), newfangled (adjective), newfangledness (noun), newfanglement (noun), newfangleness (noun), newfanglist (noun) and newfangly (adverb).

But it’s not just the sheer array of fangles that’s surprising – it’s the ages of them.  If you’d asked me where I thought ‘newfangled’ came from, I’d have said it sounded like the sort of word made up for an American Presidential election about 100 years ago.

I am completely wrong.  The OED records its first usage of newfangled in – get this – in 1300.

If þi loverd is neufangel, Ne be þou nout forþi outgangel Mid illore iwon.

In the 14th century, it also appears in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Gower’s Confession Amantis, which I was made to study for a whole term at university and still came out none the wiser!

The OED seems a little unclear on the etymology.  The ‘fang’ bit it gives as an obsolete meaning of ‘to grasp hold of’, and the ‘new’ bit tells you how modern the thing is of which you’re grasping hold.

The word is compared to the Middle Dutch – nieuvingel – or even more excitingly, the Faroese fangla, which means to catch hold of.  I can honestly say I’ve never come across a word in English that derives from Faroese,  and am quite sadly excited!

We used to use ‘newfangled’ to refer to the person who loved the latest fashion, but we now use it to mean ‘new’ or ‘the latest thing’.

I’ve also discovered that I’m not the first to coin ‘oldfangled’ – someone beat me to that by 214 years as it first appears in 1797!  The OED gives the delightful definition of ‘oldfangled’ as meaning: ‘characterized by adherence to what is old, old-fashioned.’

And fangle does also exist – although the dictionary suggests it is effectively a mistake.  Peoplewere used to ‘newfangled’ – so assumed there must be a ‘fangle’ to be new.  Fangled came to mean newly fashioned and a fangle a fad, although this mean seems to have died out of usage.  The latest usage is in 1881: “New fashions and fangles of dress, of manners, and of speech.”

For a word that’s 700 years young, ‘newfangled’ still speaks to human behaviour and the love of the latest.  But is the word sufficient on its own anymore?  Should we now be talking about ‘techfangled’ or even Applefangled?

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On ‘perigee’ and ‘peruke’

25 Mar

The papers have been filled with stories about the Super Moon recently.  It’s apparently 31,000 miles closer than normal and 14% brighter.  I can’t say I have noticed a difference myself!

The word they’ve been using to describe the moon is ‘perigee’ – which is a word I’d never heard before.  It doesn’t sound like an astronomical word to me, more like a cooking technique or an 18th century ball game.

I did have to admit when I first read ‘perigee’ in the news, my first thought wasn’t of moons or other astronomical bodies; it was something a lot more down to earth – wigs!

After looking the word up, I realised I was confusing with ‘perigee’ with ‘peruke’, which does actually mean ‘wig’.

And contrary to my expectations, ‘perigee’ does have a proper astronomical meaning.  It refers to the point of an orbit at which the satellite is closest to earth (so is entirely logical in the context of the Super Moon!), or the time of the year when the sun is lowest in the sky at noon (such as the Winter Solistice).

The word derives from the Latinperigeum’, and comes into English in the late 16th century via Middle French.   It doesn’t really get used any more outside of the specific astronomical context, although it occasionally crops up to refer more generally to the lowest point or ‘nadir’

And what I didn’t realise is that ‘perigee’ is the opposite of ‘apogee’, which is a word I did know.  If ‘perigee’ is the closest point, then ‘apogee’ is the furthest point – and both words are recorded in English for the first time at the same time.  It also has an astronomical meaning but we use it more commonly to simply refer to the ‘peak’.

It’s curious how ‘apogee’ has become more popular in ‘perigee’ – both words came into English together, and both seem equally useful.  I wonder if there are any other pairs of words that have shared a similarly rich dad / poor dad fate.

‘Peruke’ is nothing to do with the literal moon – although as it’s commonly associated with bald heads, I’d say it’s pretty familiar with moons of one sort.

Fascinatingly, ‘peruke’ once meant a full, natural head of hair – and now means the complete opposite, a wig that imitates the hair.  The origins of the word are French – perruque – but beyond that, the etymology is extremely unclear.  It’s speculated whether the word is related to ‘parakeet’ – I guess a wig and some brightly-coloured feathers are both plumage of a sort.

After reading the OED online, I just wanted to compliment the writers on the definition of ‘wig’ – isn’t this a lovely piece of writing?

An artificial covering of hair for the head, worn to conceal baldness or to cover the inadequacy of the natural hair, as a part of professional, ceremonial, or formerly of fashionable, costume (as still by judges and barristers, formerly also by bishops and other clergymen), or as a disguise (as by actors on the stage).

So big moons and bald heads – a great start to a weekend!

No? Me either. Answers to the youth slang quiz.

17 Mar

Wa’gwan?  (question)    What’s happening?

Tonk (adjective)            Muscular

Choong (adjective)        Gorgeous

Brap (onomatopoeic word)        Celebratory noise

Brare (noun)                  Friend

Slippin (adjective)         Up to no good

Wack (adjective)            Rubbish

Blad (noun)                   Friend

Par (verb, I think)           Get one up on someone

Wasteman (noun)          Layabout

Allow it (verb)               Ignore it

Owned (verb)                Made a fool of

Merked (verb)               Merked

Beef (noun)                   Dispute

Giving me jokes (verb) Making me laugh

Airing (verb)                 Ignoring

Bedrin (noun)                Friends

Bless (verb)                  Honour something

Boi (noun)                     Young man

KMT (expression starting with a verb)     Kiss my teeth

Bustin (verb)                 To do something

Chirps (verb)                Chat up

Cotch (verb)                  Relax at home

Fam (noun)                   Close friend

Crunk (adjective)           Very drunk

Dark (adjective)             Bad but can mean good

Deep (adjective)            Good but can mean bad

Endz (noun)                  Where you live

I wonder if ‘airing‘ comes from the gesture of putting one’s nose in the air to ignore someone.  ‘Cotch‘ is also interesting as it’s very close to the Welsh ‘cwtch’, which means a ‘safe place’, but also to ‘cuddle up to someone’.  And ‘beef‘ to mean ‘complaint’ isn’t exactly new – according to the OED, people have been using ‘beef’ to mean complain since 1888 and to mean complaint since 1900.  So perhaps today’s teenagers wouldn’t be too impressed to learn they’re speaking the lingo of their great-grandparents!

On ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’

9 Mar

I’m currently about a third through Edmund de Waal’s ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, which tells the story of the various family members who have at one time owned a collection of over 240 netsuke that have since passed into Edmund’s hands.

As I’m fascinated with all things Japanese (see my earlier post about ‘kudos’), I’m more interested in the netsuke than the family saga – and I wish upon wish that I could see pictures of all 246 netsuke.  About nine netsuke have been photographed for the book – and the best I could find on the web was this seven picture collection that appeared in The Guardian.

The reason I’ve chosen to write about de Waal’s book is he keeps dropping in words that I don’t understand, dagnabbit.

The word ‘netsuke’ itself – I know (sort of) what a netsuke is and common sense dictates the word is Japanese in origin.  The OED gives its origin as “to attach a root”, which makes sense as netsuke were a type of toggle, used to fasten.   Interestingly, the first recorded use of the word in English is 1876, in a Victoria and Albert catalogue.  So around 20 years after Japan opened its border to trade with the West, ‘netsuke’ had already become collectors’ items, worthy of being exhibited in the finest museums.

Another word of which de Waal is extremely fond is ‘flaneurial’.  This seems to be a unique coinage as I can’t find it in any other dictionary – and to be honest, the only thing Google throws up is another blogger also commenting on de Waal’s excessive usage.  The word ‘flaneur’ does appear in English, with its meaning  derived directly from the French,  flâneur, a ‘loafer’ or a ‘stroller’. This noun is in turn derived from the verb flâner – “to stroll”.  De Waal uses ‘flaneurial’ to describe one of his ancestors, the first to own the netsuke, who was very much a man about town, and was sufficiently wealthy to pursue a lifestyle as an art collector and critic.

A second head-scratcher I came across in the book was ‘lambent’.  I had no idea what this meant – but the dictionary suggests it’s an adjective that effectively conveys the sense of a flickering light.  It’s a pretty obscure word, and if you google it, you’ll find the first few pages are either dictionary listings or are things like design firms or war-gaming sites, where people often enjoy antiquated language.

So one third of the book down, and two new words.  I’m sure there will be many more to go before the end!

On going ‘gingerly’

28 Feb
Zingiber

Image via Wikipedia

One of the things I worry about unduly is opening toilet doors.  It’s not a germ phobia, more a fear there’ll be someone in there and we’ll both end up incredibly embarrassed.

It occurred to me that the word for how I open toilet doors is ‘gingerly’ – which is a strange thing as ‘ginger’ is normally associated with spiciness, impact, or if you’re a redhead like me, a fiery temper.  The last thing we’d normally associated ‘ginger’ with is a delicacy of movement – surely it should mean to burst into a room, rather than approach it with trepidation?

As it turns out, ‘ginger’ and ‘gingerly’ have absolutely nothing in common. Ginger has quite well established linguistic roots – with many scholars arguing its roots back beyond Sanskrit to earlier Dravidian forms.  If you look at the Latin name for ‘ginger’, Zingiber officinale, you can clearly see the root of the root.  *ahem*.

But by contrast, ‘gingerly’ is described as ‘of obscure origin’ (real meaning = ‘we don’t really know how it ended up in the language’.)

The OED suggests that ‘ginger-‘ (as the first part of ‘gingerly’) may be related to words for ‘gentle’ or ‘gentlemanliness’, deriving perhaps from the Old French ‘gensor’.

This etymology would fit with the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’, which relate to an elegant style of dancing – “And I can daunce it gingerly” first appears in c.1520.  The word then moves from meaning ‘elegantly’ to meaning something more akin to ‘effiminately’ – as in this usage from 1583: “Their dansing minions, that minse it ful gingerlie‥tripping like gotes that an egge wold not brek vnder their feet.”

The sense of moving cautiously is also pretty early, here seen in 1534: “We staye and prolonge our goinge with a nyce or tendre and softe, delicate, or gingerly pace [L. tenero ac molli passu].”  This definition of gingerly has continued to the modern day – although I particularly love this usage in Robert Louis Stevenson from 1885 as it’s truly the definition brought to life: “[He] gingerly transported the explosive to the far end of the apartment.”

So it’s not a brilliantly clear-cut etymology, but as the OED argues, there’s no better alternative.  There is a Swedish dialect word gingla, gängla that means to totter, but it’s discounted firstly on account of the sounds, and secondly as it doesn’t carry the meaning of ‘elegantly’ as does the earliest usage of ‘gingerly’.

At least now I can console myself that I’m actually opening the toilet doors ‘elegantly’ 🙂

Dilemma vs dilemna

14 Feb
Ron Howard during filming of Angles and Demons...

Image via Wikipedia

The one radio programme I religiously listen to is Radio Five’s Mark
Kermode and Simon Mayo’s Film Reviews
on a Friday afternoon.

If I can’t listen live, look forward to the chance to walk the dog by
myself so I can plug in my headphones and catch up with the podcasts
uninterrupted.  I often find myself laughing out loud as I walk along!

Both Mark and Simon are fond of commenting on language and grammar in
particular.  Mark especially loves interrupting the readers’ emails, read aloud by Simon, to correct the grammar.  Mark’s special bugbear seems to be
sentences that end with prepositions – but the delightful irony is that
Mark then goes on to give film reviews, and promptly ends a number of
sentences with prepositions, breaking all the grammar rules for which he’s
just chastised listeners (or as Mark might say during a review, which he’s
just chastised listeners for!).

Recently, Mark and Simon had to review the Ron Howard film ‘The Dilemma’.
It may have been Simon who said during the programme – “When did the
spelling change?”

My ears instantly pricked up.  Had I been spelling dilemma wrong for all
these years?  I hadn’t ever seen an alternative spelling to D-I-L-E-M-M-A,
so what were they talking about?

It turned out that both Mark and Simon were under the apprehension that
dilemma was spelled D-I-L-E-M-N-A.  And a number of listeners started to
write in as well to confirm the view that dilemma was indeed spelled with
an ‘mn’ at the end, in line with words like ‘solemn’.

I was listening live and frantically opened the Oxford English Dictionary
online to find out what was going on.  To my relief, the OED offered no
entries under ‘dilemna’.

So where had this ‘mn’ version come from?  If you google it, you find a
whole host of entries, many around the confusion between the ‘-mma’ and
‘mna’ endings.  It seems like the ‘mna’ ending was widely taught in many
schools in the UK, US and Canada – and potentially millions of students
have learned a different spelling.

One website suggests the revised spelling is an example of hypercorrection,
which is when people make a change erroneously as they believe the original
is wrong and needs to be corrected.  You see hypercorrection a lot in the
use of ‘I’ and ‘me’ – people tend to hypercorrect and overuse ‘I’ (between
him and I) as they think ‘me’ is the wrong usage.

With dilemNa, it’s thought teachers changed the spelling to bring it in
line with words like ‘column’, ‘solemn’ and ‘condemn’.   As a side note,
one blog post I read suggested the same hypercorrection had happened in
French with ‘dilemme’ and ‘dilemne’.

But both the original Greek and the later Latin version offer a double ‘m’
spelling.  The fabulous One Look (a website that searches all online
dictionaries) offers four entries for dilemNa – each of which describes the
word as a common misspelling.

So the good news for Ron Howard is that he doesn’t have to change any of
his film’s marketing (I hear the movie’s rubbish anyway) – and Mark and
Simon seem to have resigned themselves to defeat on this one.

The fly in the ointment

23 Jan
Titlepage and dedication from a 1612-1613 King...

Image via Wikipedia

In October last year, I played the birthday card and persuaded my husband to give up his Friday night to accompany me to the ‘Warwick Words’ festival to see David Crystal talk on the King James Bible.

It was an evening of warmth, wit and insight – much like the many brilliant books David Crystal has written.   He’s a fantastic presenter, and even my husband, who has no particular interest in the English language or the King James Bible (the subject of the talk), thoroughly enjoyed the session.

In his talk, David debunked some of the myths around the King James Bible – that it is the ‘DNA’ of our English language.  The influence of the King James Bible, he argued, is not in the grammar, syntax, vocabulary or spelling of English.  Instead, he claims that where it is influential is in the use of idiom – ‘the fly in the ointment’, ‘am I my brother’s keeper?’, ‘a man after my own heart’, a ‘two-edged sword’, ‘pearls before swine’ and many, many more.

Here’s a list of those idioms from phrases.org.uk

But as David went on to explain, there are surprisingly few idioms truly original to the King James Bible.  Many had actually appeared in earlier versions of the Bible, and I think (and I may have misremembered) that David counted only 18 idioms that could first be traced to the King James version.

There’s a great interview with David on icons.org.uk (and it’s great to see him on this site as he is one of my icons!)

David’s also written an article for the Oxford English Dictionary site on this topic.

Finally, here’s David’s book Begat on the King James Bible.  I haven’t read it – but if it’s like any of the many other books of his I have read, it’s bound to be a delight.